Sea of Shadows doesn’t play out like a typical conservation documentary. Austrian director Richard Ladkani says he realized halfway through shooting that it was a thriller and tried to construct it that way, and it’s not much of a stretch to compare it to Sicario or Traffic. Think The Cove meets Sicario, to put it in Hollywood shorthand terms.
While Sea of Shadows is ostensibly about the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale and one of its most endangered species, with a population currently estimated at 15 or less, there are times in the film that the animals themselves are overshadowed by the sheer ballsiness of the filmmakers and some of the environmentalists and journalists trying to save them.
Lots of environmental activism is aspirational, examples of ways we could imagine ourselves making a difference if we were better, braver, more compassionate people. All I could think watching Sea of Shadows was, “Oh God I would never do this.”
It’s one thing to take on Japanese whaling ships (as the crew of the Sea Shepherd, featured prominently in Sea of Shadows and previously seen on Whale Wars so often do) or even ivory poachers (as in director Richard Ladkani’s previous film, The Ivory Game, for Netflix), but in Sea of Shadows, the main adversary is Mexican drug cartels. Who, as Ladkani puts it, “Don’t fuss around. They just kill you if they don’t like you.”
The cartels have turned sale of the swim bladder from the totoaba, the “cocaine of the sea” prized in China for its supposed medicinal properties, into a lucrative trade with Chinese brokers (a process during which the vaquita is merely an unintended bycatch). The cartels seem to have been able to buy protection at the highest levels of Mexican law enforcement and the military, and yet you have Ladkani and his crew trying to infiltrate their gangs just to get the word out, and Mexican journalist Carlos Loret de Mola going on Mexican TV with his face uncovered in an attempt to do same. This is in the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists. It’s a level of commitment that’s admirable even as its mystifying.
Another aspect that elevates Sea of Shadows as a film (which won an audience award for best documentary at Sundance, along with a handful of other festivals) is that Ladkani doesn’t soft-peddle what it takes to wage a fight like this and how hopeless it can feel. Especially when conservationists raise millions for a rescue effort that turns out to be a disaster, or when poorly executed conservation policy seems to achieve nothing but putting legal fisherman out of work and sour the public on environmentalists. To Ladkani though, that’s just part of the challenge for a fight that’s worth waging. It’s one he’s still fighting.
With Sea of Shadows opening in a handful of cities this past week (New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago), I spoke to Ladkani by phone.